SILVER

What's up with WhatsApp?

I surveyed 136 adults to learn about the importance of privacy in their on-line communications and their limitations on how much privacy they are willing to give up for free communication.
Avaani Thusoo
Grade 8

Hypothesis

Hypothesis

Adults will leave free communication apps due to having to give up more of their privacy and personal information. Specifically older adults, women, and non-South Asians are more likely to leave.

 

Research

Background Research

What Is WhatsApp?

WhatsApp was first released in 2009. It is a messaging app where you can text, chat, send videos, record voice messages and send it to any number of people. It is a free app with over 2 billion users. I chose WhatsApp for my project because it recently changed its privacy policy. 

 

Why Did Facebook Buy WhatsApp?

When Facebook bought WhatsApp in February 2014, they paid $16 billion ($4 billion in cash and $12 billion in Facebook shares). Even though Facebook has a messaging app called Messenger, WhatsApp has more users. In fact, WhatsApp is the number one messaging app whereas Facebook’s Messenger is in second place. As a result, Facebook bought WhatsApp to be number one, where they gained about 450 million new phone numbers. With this new valuable information, Facebook could better target more ads and make more money. Also at the time, WhatsApp was gaining around 1 million users a day and taking many of Facebook’s users. This was a way for Facebook to get rid of their competition. 

 

What Country Uses WhatsApp The Most?

India has the most WhatsApp users with 340 million people actively using it as their form of communication. Brazil comes in at number 2 with 99 million users.

 

What Is A Summary Of WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy?

It is really hard to find WhatsApp’s privacy policy. They lead users in a loop so that users cannot actually find and read it. This indicates that they might be hiding what they are doing with users’ personal information. Previously, in 2020 users could not sue WhatsApp if they had a disagreement with something in their policy. The policy was easier to understand and they were not allowed to read people’s messages. In 2021 however, there was a big change. Starting in May, users need to agree to their new privacy policy. This will allow Facebook to take data from WhatsApp. The data collected will be information from users’ chats with businesses. WhatsApp says that this new policy will help businesses target their communications on Facebook which should help WhatsApp customers buy products they need and want. 

Users must agree to this new policy or they are forced to delete the app. It does not matter if users keep canceling the message, it will just keep popping up until they agree. This is neither an opt-in or opt-out policy. Instead, users must agree to their new privacy policy or delete the app. 

 

What Is The Opt-In Versus The Opt-Out Policy?

To opt-in means, people click “agree” to accept the new policy. People get the freedom to choose to agree or not. Whereas opt-out means that people automatically agree to the new policy, and then need to click something to get out. Many apps use the opt-out policy when it comes to privacy. It forces people to take action to reject the policy.

 

Why Are Privacy Settings Important?

Sharing information with people through social media is a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, especially if users want to share information with a lot of people. However, almost anybody can see that information. Not checking privacy options can result in people’s information getting into the wrong hands. Users have to do their best to protect their data, but social networking companies have a responsibility too. They have to obey their privacy policy and legal obligations and give their users control over their own personal information. 

When users do not pay attention to privacy settings and policies, it can result in many difficulties. Users may be judged by people from the information they put on social media sites. For example, they may not get a job because their bosses looked at their social media account and saw unprofessional content. Also, your information could be sold to advertising.

 

What Is The General Change In Privacy Policies In The Last Decade And How Do People Feel About It?

Many privacy policies are wordy, written in a lawyer-like language that is hard to understand, and the apps try to hide what they are going to do with people’s data. Many people agree to these policies and consent to documents without any level of understanding them. For example, Facebook's privacy policy takes 18 minutes to read. That time is slightly above average according to the Lexile test created by education company, Metametrics. This test evaluates the complexity of text based on length and language. In fact, the reading levels of these policies are beyond what doctors can comprehend. 

Companies did not always steal data. It took Google 2 decades to evolve into stealing users' privacy.  Albert Gidari, the Consulting Director of Privacy at the Stanford Centre for Internet and Safety, stated, “You are confused into thinking these policies are there to inform users, as opposed to protecting companies. Over the next year, it is estimated that privacy policies will be even more complex as companies want to take more data.” 

 

How Do People Feel About Their Privacy Being Violated?

The only website found about how people feel about privacy violations was an American-based study. Many Americans think first, that companies are not willing to admit their mistakes and second, are confident that their privacy is being collected by these companies.“6 in 10 American adults think it would be impossible to get through life without having some of their data collected.” “In addition, 8 in 10 American adults think they have no control over their data.” 

When looking at feelings based on race, Black Americans were more likely to believe the government was tracking them than white Americans. The study also found differences based on age. Older adults (65+) were more likely to feel that they have no control over who has access to their privacy, than younger adults (18-29). Also, older Americans do not think they benefit from this data collection. 

 

What Do People Want For Their Privacy?

Pew Research estimates 84% of American adults use the internet in places where their privacy and security are at risk. They created a survey to find out what internet users want in terms of privacy and what they can do to protect their own privacy. The results showed that there was a big difference between what people want for privacy and what they do to protect it. Specifically, the study showed that most people want to have more internet privacy, however, they do not use the tools/techniques that are available. The survey also found out that 70% of users say they restrict the amount of information they put on social media to avoid other people knowing their personal information. 67% say they want more layers of security, but are not willing to take precautions to protect themselves. 

The survey showed gender differences as well. Women were more careful in sharing their information online, and less likely to give up personal information, such as birthdays or addresses. Overall women were more careful to maintain their privacy.

 

What Did Apple Do That Was Different?

Apple started with a report called “A Day in the Life of Your Data”. The report was easy to understand, illustrating how some companies can track their users' data across different apps and websites. Apple also said that they will have a transparent privacy policy and give users control over their privacy. Craig Feberight, Apple's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering, stated “Our goal is to create technology that keeps people's information safe and protected. We believe privacy is a basic human right and our team is embedding it into everything we make.” Their new label requires every app on their devices to give an easy to view a summary of their privacy policy. It is called the Privacy Nutrition Label. Each app has to include its plan for the users’ data and if users can be tracked using their app. Now apps need to get the user's permission before the company can have access to the users’ information. Users are allowed to say no. This has gained a lot of support from many privacy activists around the world. In the next 12 months, these changes will cause Google to lose $17 billion in profits and Facebook to lose $8 billion. Their marketing ads will not be personalized which will result in profit loss. 

 

Variables

Variables 

Independent Variables

  • The changing privacy policies of free online communication apps.
  • Demographics like gender, generation, and ethnicity. 

 

Controlled Variables 

Here are my controlled variables:

  • All the participants will have/had WhatsApp
  • All the participants will be surveyed online with a Google form 
  • All the participants will be surveyed individually 
  • All the participants will be adults (18 years and older) 
  • All the participants will live in Canada 

 

Dependent Variables

  • The number of participants who leave or uninstall the free online communications App based on changing privacy policies.
  • The number of participants who believe they will leave or uninstall the free communications App based on changing privacy policies.

 

Procedure

Procedure

Step 1: After watching the news on WhatsApp’s new privacy policy and people’s concerns over what data would be shared with Facebook, I decided to do my science fair project on how people feel about their privacy being violated, while using their favorite communications apps. I was also interested to learn if people would leave WhatsApp, once they found out that their personal information would be shared with another company.

 

Step 2: I scanned the Internet to see if any surveys existed on people’s behaviour and privacy policies. I did not find any surveys that matched my criteria. As a result, I developed my own survey questions using information from my background research. I categorized my survey questions into 3 groups. 

  • WhatsApp Usage
  • General Online Privacy Rights, Knowledge and Concerns
  • WhatsApp’s New Privacy Policy

I was also interested to see if there would be differences in behaviour and feelings between genders, ages and ethnicities, therefore I added demographic questions at the end of the survey.

 

Step 3: I needed to find a good online survey tool since I needed to do this survey virtually. After looking at some of the free tools available, including Survey Monkey, I decided to use Google Forms. The reasons I chose Google forms are because it was free, had many templates and I could send my survey to an unlimited number of people. 

 

Step 4: To recruit my participants, I decided to email them asking if they would fill out my survey. This email included a link to my survey, instructions on how to sign and return the consent form. Then using my parents networks I asked them to forward the message to any family, friends, and colleagues. The deadline for submitting the survey was February 18th. My original goal was to get 30 participants to fill out my survey. I surpassed this and in fact got 136 responses. This exceeded my expectations.

 

Step 5: After February 18th, I downloaded the Excel file with all my raw data from Google Forms. I chose 15 questions out of my survey that would help me answer my hypothesis. From there, I created four pivot tables for each of the 15 questions, one for total responses, gender, generation and ethnicity. This resulted in 60 graphs. I have attached pictures of these graphs in my analysis section. I also included explanations of what was interesting in the graphs that would inform my conclusion about my hypothesis.

 

Step 6: I compared my results of my survey to my original background research to see if they were similar or different. 

 

 

Observations

Observations:

  1. Half way through my project, I noticed that many Traditionalists were confused and needed help accessing the survey and signing the consent form. In fact, one of my participants ended up calling me and doing the survey over the phone.  

 

  1. As soon as the email was sent to potential participants, the response rate was high on the first day. The responses dropped later that week. Once a reminder email was sent a week later, the response rate shot up again. 

 

  1. Many participants seemed to pick the middle option instead of firmly choosing a side and an opinion.

 

  1. On one of my questions I asked participants if they have ever refused to do business with a company due to its privacy policy. The results were split half way between participants who said yes and no. Although that was the case, when I asked if they uninstalled WhatsApp after learning about the new privacy policy that would share more of their personal information, only 6 people said that they did. None of the men uninstalled WhatsApp.

 

  1. Some participants recognized how targeted ads are already used in many apps, not just WhatsApp. Then in their opinion, is it really worth it if one app has great security but the others don’t. Also one participant commented on how they somewhat like targeted ads, because they have limited time to search for products of interest.

 

  1. Many participants indicated that they were concerned about their privacy, but the majority of participants didn't even read the privacy policy when they downloaded the app.

 

  1. Some participants said that the benefit of getting to stay in contact with their families and friends abroad for free was worth the cost of their privacy. Also, a few participants said that they would leave WhatsApp if there was a better option available to them for their needs. 

 

  1. While several participants valued their privacy, they think it would be difficult to stop using WhatsApp because their professional and personal lives are so dependent on this type of platform.

 

  1. One participant pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic platforms like these are important to stay in contact with family and friends while you can’t see them face to face.


 

Analysis

Demographics

Total number of participants = 136

By Gender:

  • Male: 63
  • Female: 69
  • Gender Non-Conforming: 1
  • Did Not Disclose: 3

By Age:

  • Generation Z/ Centennials (1996-now): 5
  • Generation Y/Millennials (1977-1995): 56
  • Generation X (1965-1976): 44
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964): 24
  • Traditionalists (1945 and before): 7

By Ethnicty:

  • South Asian: 60
  • European: 49
  • Asian: 8
  • Middle Eastern: 2
  • Latin American: 1
  • South Pacific: 1
  • African: 4
  • Carribean: 2
  • Mixed: 3
  • Unknown: 3
  • Other: 3

 

Conclusion

Discussion:

  • I learned in my background research that policies are very wordy and are hard to understand. This is so companies can get users to agree without reading the policy. My results supported this research. 85% (116 out of 136) of participants did not read WhatsApp’s privacy policy before they downloaded the app.

 

  • According to my background research, “6 in 10 American adults think it would be impossible to get through life without having some of their data collected.” “In addition, 8 in 10 American adults think they have no control over their data.”  My survey results show that 94 (69%) of participants disagree and strongly disagree that they feel that they can control their personal information from businesses and organizations. So it appears that my research shows that Canadians are similar to Americans in this area.

 

  • In my background research, Apple has stated that they believe privacy is a basic human right and they will embed it into everything that they make.  My results show that my participants agree with this statement.  Before WhatsApp’s new privacy policy was introduced 92 (68%) of participants were satisfied with WhatsApp; however, after their new privacy policy was announced only 24 (17%) of participants were satisfied with WhatsApp. Despite this drop in satisfaction, only 6 out of 136 participants (4%) uninstalled the app.

 

  • My results showed that there could be a market for a free communication app that respects the users’ privacy. People want to connect with their family and friends, but people are not aware of other potential options. After doing this project about this issue, it might be worth researching to see what motivation it would take for participants to switch to another app. 


 

Conclusion:

 

At the beginning of my project, my hypothesis was that most people would leave a free communication app if learning that they would have to give up more of their personal information and privacy. Also, I hypothesized that women, Traditionalists, and Non-South Asians are more likely to leave the app. 

 

Overall my hypothesis was proven to be mostly incorrect. Only 6 out of 136 (4%) participants, uninstalled WhatsApp after hearing about the new privacy policy and how their personal information would be shared with Facebook and other companies.

 

4 out of the 6 participants who uninstalled WhatsApp were Non-South Asian. This partially supports my hypothesis that Non-South Asians were more likely to leave the app; however, the majority of Non-South Asians (72 out of 76 participants) did not leave WhatsApp. Additionally, 4 out of the 6 participants who uninstalled WhatsApp were women and none were men (i.e., 1 participant chose not to disclose their gender and 1 participant was gender non-conforming).  This also partially supports my hypothesis that women were more likely to leave the app than men; however, the majority of women (60 out of 64 participants) did not leave WhatsApp. Finally, only 1 out of the 6 participants were Traditionalists who uninstalled WhatsApp, which does not support my hypothesis.   

 

 

Application

Applications

My project helps bring awareness to online communications privacy policies and how changes to these policies may violate people’s personal privacy. Most businesses count on the fact that users will accept their privacy policies without them reading them. This allows businesses to access their users’ personal information to target their ads to sell them their products. Businesses can also sell users’ personal information to other companies, where people don’t know what their information is being used for. This information could be used against them when trying to get jobs or get health insurance for instance. I hope this project informs people about the dangers of not reading privacy policies and encourages people to uninstall apps that are taking advantage of their personal information. This information could also be used to inform people who work in online privacy rights so that they can develop information materials designed specifically for people of different genders, ages and ethnicities.

 

Sources Of Error

These are my sources of error:

 

  1. I received less consent forms as compared to survey responses. I could not identify the participants who did not sign their consent forms because the survey was completely anonymous. However, in my email to participants, I did stress to them to complete the consent form before doing the survey. Clearly it was not enough. Next time I will attach the consent form right into the survey, making it mandatory. Then participants would have to complete it, before continuing to do the survey. 

 

  1. There was an imbalance of demographics, that is, I didn’t have equal numbers for each category of demographics. 
    • For gender, male and female were pretty balenced, but I did not have many participants who identified as gender non-conforming. 
    • For generations, I had a good sample of Gen Xers, Gen Yers, and Baby 
    • Boomers, but not many Traditionalists or Gen Zers. 
    • For ethnicity, I had good representation of South Asians and Europeans, but not many in the other ethnic groups. 

An increased number of participants in each demographic category are important to have more accurate information. Next time, I would try to get a larger sample size and reach out to other target groups to increase their numbers.

 

  1. Only people with gmail accounts could fill in the survey, because I used google forms. There were many websites where you could build a survey, but I chose Google forms because it was free and had a variety of templates to choose from. As a result participants had to have a google account if they wanted to participate. I believe I could have had even more participants fill out the survey if this was not the requirement.

 

  1. The survey was only sent to my parents network of family, friends and colleagues. That could explain why I had more South Asian and European participants in my sample. Next time, I would consider posting a sign at my school and the grocery stories in my neighbourhood to get more diversity in my sample.


 

 

Citations

References

  1. Apple’s Press. (2021, January 27). Data privacy day at Apple: Improving transparency and empowering users. Apple. https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2021/01/data-privacy-day-at-apple-improving-transparency-and-empowering-users/
  2. Auxier, B., Rainie, L., Anderson, M., Perrin, A., Kumar, M., & Turner, E. (2019, November 15). Americans and privacy: Concerned, confused and feeling lack of control over their personal information. Pew Research. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/11/15/americans-and-privacy-concerned-confused-and-feeling-lack-of-control-over-their-personal-information/ 
  3. Blodget, H. (2014, February 20). Everyone who thinks Facebook is stupid to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion should think again ... Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-facebook-buying-whatsapp-2014-2
  4. Hamilton, I. A. (2021, January 7). WhatsApp is forcing users to share personal data with Facebook, and Elon Musk is urging people to switch to signal, a smaller encrypted messaging app. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/whatsapp-forcing-users-to-share-personal-data-facebook-elon-musk-2021-1 
  5. Koetsier, J. (2021, January 22). Apple privacy change may cost Facebook, Google $25 billion over next 12 months. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2021/01/22/apple-privacy-change-may-cost-facebook-google-25-billion-over-next-12-months/?sh=33fc2f585695
  6. Litman-Navarro, K. (2019, June 12). We read 150 privacy policies. They were an incomprehensible disaster. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/12/opinion/facebook-google-privacy-policies.html
  7. Murnane, K. (2016, April 11). How men And women differ in their approach to online privacy and security. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kevinmurnane/2016/04/11/how-men-and-women-differ-in-their-approach-to-online-privacy-and-security/?sh=36caa95d7d88 
  8. Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. (2019, August 1). Staying safe on social media. https://www.priv.gc.ca/en/privacy-topics/technology/online-privacy-tracking-cookies/online-privacy/social-media/02_05_d_74_sn/ 
  9. Steele, C. (2014, February 20). What is WhatsApp? An explainer. PCMAG. https://www.pcmag.com/news/what-is-whatsapp-an-explainer 
  10. Tankovska, H. (2021, January 28). Countries with most WhatsApp users 2019. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/289778/countries-with-the-most-facebook-users/#:~:text=There%20are%20over%20340%20million,most%20popular%20messaging%20service%20worldwide
  11. The Graduate. (2019, October 16). Importance of social media privacy settings. The Graduate Recruitment Agency | Graduate Jobs Northampton. https://www.thegraduaterecruitment.co.uk/importance-of-social-media-privacy-settings
  12. WhatsApp. (2020, July 20). WhatsApp privacy policy. https://www.whatsapp.com/legal/privacy-policy
  13. WhatsApp. (2020, January 28). WhatsApp terms of service. https://www.whatsapp.com/legal/client
  14. Woodard, N. (2020, December 11). When did Facebook buy WhatsApp & how much did it pay? ScreenRant. https://screenrant.com/facebook-whatsapp-purchase-date-cost/#:~:text=Facebook%20purchased%20WhatsApp%20in%20February,%2412%20billion%20in%20Facebook%20share

Acknowledgement

Acknowledgements

 

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this online science fair. 

First, I would like to thank all the volunteers who participated in my survey. Without them, I would not have been able to reach 136 responses. This exceeded my original goal.

Next, I would like to thank my school's Science Fair coordinator, Ms. Osicki. She helped me figure out how to participate in the science fair now that it is going online. She was always there to answer questions about the online science fair. If she didn't know the answer, she would find it out.

Lastly, I would like to thank my parents. My mom helped me through the entire science fair, reviewing my work and brainstorming with me on how to make my project better. She also was the one to introduce the news article to me in the first place. Without her the project would never have taken place. I also want to thank my dad who was a great encourager and helped brainstorm fun project names with me. They both also let me send my survey to their contacts to get more participants and overall without doing that the project would have been a lot less acurate.